The Kennedy Men is an invaluable piece of history. Laurence Leamer has managed to pull back the shroud of secrecy behind which the Kennedy family has so long lived. The depth of detail and the fairness of reporting makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the Kennedy mystique. A word of caution: if you are an admirer of the Kennedy legend, you may be in for a rude awakening. The overwhelming tragedy that befell President Kennedy has left some of us perpetually viewing his life through rose-colored glasses. The image that emerges from the pages of this book is of a human being with flaws like the rest of us who also managed to become an accomplished politician.
Joseph Kennedy was judged with more dispassionate honesty than his famous sons were. Some of the things in this book are not startling revelations -- the shady beginnings of the family fortune, the numerous affairs, and his less than tactful turn as an ambassador to the court of Saint James. There are tidbits that help to explain his behavior. The fact that Rose was so unimpressed with sex that Joe threatened to “tell the priest on you,” combined with the prevailing attitude of the time that wives would suffer from nervous prostration if they had sex more than once a month, helps shed light on his constant philandering.
Joe Junior was the golden child to whom everything came easily. It is common knowledge that he volunteered for his suicide mission even though his tour was up because he felt he had to bring back a better medal than his brother Jack had earned. It is poignantly eerie to learn that Joe had told another officer that he wished he could back out of the mission but felt there was no way to do so honorably. The infamous Kennedy competitive streak then claimed its first victim.
JFK was a “mucker”, the name given to the bunch he ran with at Harvard. His bad back and Addison’s disease are well known, but the fact that he had so many inexplicable illnesses that disappeared as quickly as they appeared is new information. The infamous affairs were conducted in a much more indiscreet manner than most people knew. His behavior grew more restless the longer he was in office, perhaps due to the immense pain he endured or the ever-increasing shots of amphetamines he got from “Dr. Feelgood.” The injections continued despite his other physician’s dire warnings, and even his beloved brother Bobby entreated him to stop. It was known even then that such shots had side effects of a feeling of omnipotence, which calls into to question the way that all of his decisions were made.
Robert Kennedy has always been “ruthless Robert” to his detractors. This book reveals that his enemies were not far from the truth. Bobby was an obsessive personality, and his tenacious preoccupation with eliminating Castro by any means possible would be frightening on its own. When combined with his brother the President’s subsequent murder, it becomes nauseatingly suggestive of the consequences of blind determination. It is intriguing to ponder whether what Bobby’s friends assert is true: that he was a man changed by the immense tragedy on that infamous day in November. Perhaps Leamer will cover that in a subsequent book that would be an interesting and poignant read as well.
Finally, we come to Edward Kennedy, Teddy to most of us. His reputation has often had a whiff of scandal about it. In that, he is more like the progenitor Joseph Kennedy.
Like many who were not born when President Kennedy was assassinated, I have been guilty of idealizing him. I overlooked his faults of womanizing (and accompanying chauvinism) as well as his opponents’ criticisms that the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis were due in part to his inexperience and mishandling of the situations. Leamer has forced me to look with an unblinking gaze at the whole picture. Seeing JFK's moral failings and character flaws does not obliterate the other picture that this book paints. Toward the end, he was maturing into a better president. We will never know what President Kennedy could have done for the betterment of our nation. Yes, you will finish this book with a different view of our thirty-sixth president. Yet his legacy of what might have been will remain intact forever.